Spain's four-decade baby-snatching nightmare: What motivated the abductions?

Nobody knows exactly how many Spanish women were victims of the baby-snatching industry. Because it seemed to operate with the willful ignorance -- at the very least -- of the state, and with the collusion of the Catholic Church, the record keeping was abysmal - probably deliberately.

Women, who were told their babies had died in childbirth or shortly thereafter, were not given death certificates, were not allowed to see their allegedly deceased children, or were shown what they now believe to be other dead children and told they were theirs.

Spain probes thousands of alleged baby abductions

The effect is that any Spanish woman who lost a baby in childbirth during that period -- or was told she did -- now wonders if that supposedly dead child is a living adult somewhere. And anyone in Spain born in the 1970s or 80s who knows he or she was adopted is wondering whether they were stolen from their natural mother, who now thinks they're dead.

The political context is important. The abductions seem to have peaked in the latter decades of the Franco era and the years that followed.

Francisco Franco's fascists controlled Spain with an iron fist from 1939 -- when they finally emerged victorious at the end of the extremely bitter Spanish Civil War -- until his death in 1975. But his favored elites, in government, in the various professional establishments (legal, medical) and in The Church, continued to operate in the transitional years toward democracy.

What was the motivation for the abductions? There are plenty of theories. One is that the children of parents thought to be morally wanting -- maybe single mothers, maybe left-leaning politically -- were prime targets to be moved to more politically correct (right-wing, Catholic) families.

But the dominant theory is more basic than that: money.

The babies were sold, the proceeds pocketed or perhaps put to causes favored by those involved.

A Madrid lawyer who is representing several of the women claims there may have been as many as 300,000 cases. That's a lot of money. But the cost to the mothers involved cannot be measured.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips returned to the CBS News London bureau as a correspondent in 1993. He has covered many major stories since then, including the war in the Balkans, the death of Princess Diana and the weapons inspection conflicts in Iraq.

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